Today’s lesson: Nova Scotia is bigger than it looks
Before leaving Halifax (as late as it is in the day) we decide to pay a visit to the explosion memorial in the neighborhood uphill from the site of the 1917 disaster. We drive along the harbor between the bridges and sneak up the residential streets with their well-kept little houses to the unkempt park that’s home to the statue and bells. On the dead-end street leading to the park we crash a wedding party, apparently a brunch for the newlyweds – a happy young couple is jumping into a maroon PT Cruiser painted “Juat Married!” with soap. It’s late. We linger briefly at the water-stained memorial, unable to see clearly down to the waterline thanks to the overgrowth. We jump back into the unmarked Alero and drive south to see some of the little towns on the east coast before heading to the Annapolis Valley.
One of the guidebooks calls Peggy’s Cove “probably the most photographed village in Canada.” I guess photography and parking share an inverse relationship, as it takes about ten minutes for the line of cars (on a holiday weekend Sunday, granted) to inch toward the famed lighthouse that is probably the most photographed lighthouse in Canada.
It’s nice and all, but if you’ve seen one lighthouse…
On the way out of Peggy’s Cove we pass the round icon that is the memorial to Swissair Flight 111, which crashed into the waters off Peggy’s Cove in September 1998. There’s a big crowd around the obelisk and we realize belatedly that this is the third anniversary of the tragic accident.
More towns, fewer people
We pass on the main highway in favor of the sights along Route 3, which gives us the stately painted houses of Mahone Bay and the lovely Victorian architecture of Lunenburg where we finally stop for lunch along the water. The food is good, the service silent. Silent as in, “you want me to order now?” Is it so hard to say hello and smile a little?
We still get the Halifax radio station, and now they’re playing the top ten from 1981 – April Wine, Foreigner, Rush. I call a couple of ’em.
Open it up
Our last stop on the east side is to be the Kejimkujik Seaside Adjunct, and as we’d like to see it in daylight we head back to the main highway to hurtle southwest as quickly as possible into the falling sun. The map is deceiving – what looks like a half-hour drive takes more than twice that, and the sun is pretty low as we complete the 4-mile stretch of gravel road and pull into the lot at the little park station. The preserve is all cranberry bog and horseflies; we pass on the full loop track in favor of the beach trail. The gravel path is flat and easy, the impenetrable bushes climb to chest level on both sides, and there’s only one other couple on the trail heading out (it is pretty late).
Miles of bog and bugs give way to cold white sand and the Atlantic – we think we see seals frolicking in the evening sun. The park has provided a telescope to watch the wildlife, and I use it to snap a photo of an abandoned lighthouse offshore. The other couple catches up with us at the scope and are startled when we ask if they’d take a photo of us with our camera. It’s called a favor, and the man dutifully if uncomfortably complies.
It’s more like 90 miles, and it’s not flat-out highway – there are many little towns sprinkled along the route which bring the speed limit down to about 30mph for long stretches. Plus at night the locals have this habit of slowing down for the cars in the distance behind them… more than once we see a car far ahead detect our headlights and lay on the brakes. The drive is equal parts patience and NASCAR pyrotechnics as the full moon rises behind us, illuminating the fog which hangs over the marshes on either side of the road. What I thought would take an hour takes almost two, and it’s a little after ten PM when we arrive at the little town of Annapolis Royal. I can’t quite get my bearings from the tiny map in the guidebook so we stop at the first available payphone – which just so happens to sit next to the tidal power plant, one of the items on our itinerary. I call the owner of the Bread and Roses for last-mile directions, and he wearily passes them along.
The few square blocks of Annapolis Royal host many fine old Victorian mansions, most rehabbed into B&Bs. While making arrangements for lodging I’d originally tried to book us into the Queen Anne Inn (couldn’t get the same room for both nights) and we see it on our way, all lit up under stately old trees with a few young couples sipping drinks on the lawn. Lively. Promising.
The Bread and Roses is dead silent as we pull in to the drive. The owner’s a little miffed that we’ve arrived so late, and shocked when we ask if there’s any place in town to eat at this hour. He suggests the Fat Pheasant, within walking distance, but doesn’t hold much hope for us.
In the Bread and Roses parking lot we see a maroon PT Cruiser marked “Just Married!” in soap.
It’s the tail end of last call at the Fat Pheasant, a quaint high-ceilinged restaurant with a small bar. We order two big beers from Peter, the affable bartender. We chat for a while – he crafts birchwood furniture and makes the rounds of the North American trade shows most of the year; he tends bar during the busy season. This is his last week before heading back into the shop full time. We talk music and business as the stereo plays edgy alternative (at a polite volume) for the young guys by the bar. I mention that we’d been on the road all day and that our innkeeper wasn’t too excited to have us arrive at ten.
“So you’re at the Bread and Roses!”
Apparently the place has a reputation.
On our way back to the inn we pass this sign at the post office – apparently perfume is out of control in the Maritimes. One block over we run across a real live skunk, which emerges from under a telephone substation and struts in a line towards the Bread and Roses. We pause, then bolt for the door.
The innkeeper’s a little more helpful in the morning when we mention that we want to see some whales – he recommends a tour group waaay out at the end of Digby Neck. We give ourselves three hours for the two-hour drive as it involves hitting two ferries, and the worst timing possible would add an extra hour to our travel.
We make good time, and waiting for the first ferry treat ourselves to the world’s smallest “regular” coffee.
Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises provide a mix of sightseeing and environmental stewardship, sending marine researchers out on the tour boats to count and track the whales in the Bay of Fundy. The forceful Fundy tides and steep shelf drop-off combine to flush plenty of plankton to the surface, attracting a sizable and accessible whale population. Not long after our boat clears the channel I see a whale breach for another boat about a mile away. Over the course of the three-hour tour we’re treated to at least six different whales (Tusk, Meteor, B.D. & calf, Mr. Burns, 8717), a few schools of porpoise and one puffin flying away from the bow in a huff.
The tide here is serious business. The plank leading to the boat is half-flat, half-stairs – at low tide the stairs come into play, at high tide the plank is just about level and the flat half is more inviting. We board the boat almost level with the dock; three hours later we need to take the stairs.
It’s almost 5:30 as we disembark, and we barrel to our car and get in line for the ferry as quickly as possible – no sense being stranded an extra half hour. We’re hungry.
An hour later we’re chowing on fine seafood at Digby Restaurant on the main drag in Digby, watching the now-incoming tide begin to lift the scallop boats in the harbor. It’s the kind of restaurant your grandma would love, and right now we’re loving the generous portions.
At breakfast we strike up a one-way conversation with a couple from Halifax who tell us how we should spend the rest of our trip. Melanie’s a little torqued that they show no interest in what we do or have seen, but I don’t mind too much as we get a lot of good information and the Doers and Dreamers guidebook out of the deal. They recommend we check out Liscombe Lodge on our way north to Cape Breton, and we make a note of that. Nova Scotia being as deceptively long as it is, we can use all the help we can get.
On our way out of town we visit the Tidal Power Plant, one of a handful of facilities in the world attempting to harness the tides for electricity. It’s not a terribly exciting exhibit but it does clear up one lingering mystery – the little ice floes in the harbor near the plant aren’t made of ice but tree resin churned up in the turbines. So much for my thermal gradient energy-drop conversion ice floe theory.
We take two-lane Route 1 about halfway to Kentville – the tree-lined streets are very nice but eventually we get tired of the polite speed limit and cut back to the nearby highway, blasting all the way to Wolfville. The Acadia University students are just getting back to school, and we watch them orient themselves as we snack at the coffee shop on Main St.
The parks above the town are supposed to have great views of the red cliffs of Cape Blomidon, but we’ll never know as the hiking trails are closed to us due to fire risk; it’s been a dry summer.
We skirt Halifax and Dartmouth to the North and strike out along 107 and 7 (Marine Drive), hugging the rocky East coast of the province. The roads wind through countless ocean inlets but we make good time and find ourselves in Liscombe about two hours after leaving Dartmouth. The Liscombe Lodge has two rooms remaining (the old folks’ sporting club having not quite filled the place) and we settle on the Executive Suite – pretty reasonable rate, spacious and it’s got a jacuzzi. A river runs past the lodge to the Atlantic and there’s a number of good hikes; we choose a fairly short circuit as it’s getting late.
Service at the lodge restaurant is dutiful, but the mussels are the best we’ve had this side of Port Fairy, Australia.
On our way toward Cape Breton the next morning we stop for breakfast in Sherbrooke Village, a quaint little town restored to reflect its 19th-century heyday and populated with artisans in period costume during the day. At the little grill next to the Swiss hotel Melanie directs me to the front page of the paper. Hewlett-Packard has announced plans to acquire Compaq in a deal worth $25 billion (which quickly drops to $20 billion as share prices plummet). This is a big deal for me as my little software company’s main contract is with Compaq. I make a note to call the office later in the day.
As we approach the Canso Causeway we pause in Antigonish (pronounced ANNuh-guh-NISH we discover listening to the local radio station) to check out the birds along the walking trail that starts near the Heritage Museum. Immediately a bald eagle soars overhead. Cameras ready, we never see another one. But we spot a few heron along the way.